The Dirty Dozen account for the most stressful experiences children describe with their parents in the throes of divorce that they found most destructive (revealed from a national Survey on Divorce that I am conducting. See http://drphil.com/shows/page/chirban/). Each of the Dirty Dozen deprives children of the childhood and burdens them with negative emotions and experiences. Be sure that you avoid the following behaviors, whether you are in divorce or enjoying an intact family. While parents generally state that they do not want to increase the distress of their children, be watchful, as the ugly head of the dirty dozen are very destructive:
1. Putting kids in the middle: When battles cannot be taken on directly or in an effort to exert “persuasion,” parents may resort to putting their kids in the middle, having their children take sides or advocate their bidding. Children are under extraordinary strain in divorce and parents need to be careful to keep the children out of adult decision matters or from serving as their mouthpiece.
2. Using kids to fight battles: By providing unnecessary information about marital issues or the other parent and soliciting your children with your perspective on battles, you use your kids to fight battles. The anger and aggression of divorce are compounded for children in this manner.
3. Treating kids as property: When parents negotiate about their children’s interests on the basis of their legal rights and divide decisions about their children’s welfare without attention to their person and needs they are treating their children as property. This is not only demeaning to the children but diminishes their significance.
4. Revealing legal details: Legal matters are often complex for laymen to understand. Legal actions are often imposing and contentious, escalating the anxiety and despair for children ill prepared for warfare. While legal matters may seep into the air during divorce, parents should work conscientiously to shield children from legal issues that invariably intensify the loss and pain of a marital split.
5. Disclosing secrets about your spouse: Divorce usually results from unacceptable or disturbing allegations about parents. Children should not be privy to the personal lives and adult details of their parents. Private information or secrets should be kept from children as such information may be debilitating and children unfair to the parent who may have impediments in marriage but seeks to retain a positive relationship with his or her child.
6. Splitting occurs in two forms: First, in an effort to enlist the child, a parent may present himself or herself as the good parent and the other as the bad parent. Second, a child may learn to play parents against each other or split them for secondary gains. Co-parenting in divorce is often challenging, and parents need to unite forces, regardless of their differences, so that splitting does not prevail.
7. “Guilt-ing” is not a word but very much a reality when parents plead their case, victimization, or unfair treatment to the child. By making the child feel guilty for the parent’s plight, guilty for participating in legal actions, or even guilty for living, a child carries responsibility for which he or she is not responsible.
8. Suffocating is the result of being overly involved in children’s life and monitoring them beyond appropriate boundaries. By being overly involved in your child’s life, you deprive them from a balance of age-appropriate activity and do not permit them to establish their own space such that they can create their own separate identity.
9. Projecting your agenda onto your child means that you set the story for your child’s script. Rather than permitting your child to determine his or her own thoughts, you direct and correct their thoughts, essentially shaping his or her views particularly with reference to the divorce or the other parent.
10. Fighting or Attacking your spouse (in person or in public) is essentially exactly what this says: it is explosive eruptions of anger both verbal and physical that place children in the most dramatic experience of feeling torn apart—as their makers are at war.
11. Using kids to get your needs met is often a subtle process and not necessarily so different than parents who live vicariously through their children. By using your kids to get your needs met, you can remain unconscious of doing anything wrong, as you may befriend your child into a relationship that robs your child of his actual place. More overt expressions of using kids can be clearly abusive and controlling by having children perform adult tasks or responsibilities of your partner.
12. Alienating is the result of barraging children with negative information of the other parent. By supporting such negativity a child is rewarded into sharing a special bond and connection at the expense of a relationship with the other parent.
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of a soon to released SILENCED: Children of Divorce. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com and www.sexualproblems.com.